Weary Travelers Support Operation Iraqi Freedom Troops at BWI
By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, Oct. 31, 2003 — Nearly everyone has experienced it at one time or another: an airport bogged down by bad weather, delayed and cancelled flights, and cranky, overtired travelers wanting nothing more than to get to their destinations.
That's exactly what Will Ross, an administrative judge for the Defense Department's Office of Hearings and Appeals in Los Angeles, encountered Oct. 27 at Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
But what he witnessed that day, he said, "made me proud to be an American, and also told me why we will win this war (on terrorism)."
Like many of his fellow passengers, Ross had been forced to spend the night in Baltimore. His outbound flight, scheduled for the night before, had been cancelled due to the California wildfires. They had forced the Los Angeles International Airport to close, and the ripple effect drove domestic travel nationwide into a tailspin.
When Ross reported to the United Airlines counter the following morning for the next scheduled flight to Los Angeles, bad weather and aircraft mechanical problems made the prospect of a timely trip even more grim.
As he waited in the terminal, Ross noticed many soldiers in their desert camouflage uniforms, newly arrived from Southwest Asia. All, like Ross and the other passengers at the airport, were awaiting connecting flights — but in the soldiers' case, it was to begin two weeks of rest and recuperation leave.
Flight delays continued and the airport had become, in Ross's words, "a zoo." By the afternoon, one flight to Denver had been delayed several hours. United Airlines agents kept asking for volunteers to give up their seats and take another flight, but Ross said they weren't getting many takers.
Finally, Ross said a United Airlines spokeswoman got on the public address system and made a desperate plea. "Folks, as you can see, there are a lot of soldiers in the waiting area," the agent said. "They only have 14 days of leave and we're trying to get them where they need to go without spending any more time in an airport than they have to.
"We sold them all tickets knowing we would oversell the flight. If we can, we want to get them all on this flight. We want all the soldiers to know … we respect what you're doing, we are here for you and we love you," the agent continued. "The entire terminal of cranky, tired, travel-weary people -- a cross-section of America -- broke into sustained and heartfelt applause," Ross said. "We're talking about several hundred people applauding, a whole terminal.
"The soldiers looked surprised and very modest," he continued. "Most of them just looked at their boots." Many of the travelers in the terminal wiped away tears.
"And, yes," Ross said, "people lined up to take the later flight and all the soldiers went to Denver on that flight."
Ross said he figured that 30 or 40 people had suddenly jumped at the chance to offer their seats to U.S. soldiers.
That moment, he said, reinforced his patriotism and his heartfelt belief that the United States will prevail in the war on terror.
"I think people realized that this fight is going to be long and drawn-out, and these kids are in the thick of it," he said. "It was heartwarming to see their outpouring of support."